April 23, 1942 (Denver, Colorado), May 13, 1942 (New York City), release dates
Directed by Frank Tuttle
Screenplay by Albert Maltz, W. R. Burnett
Based on the novel A Gun for Sale by Graham Greene
Music by David Buttolph
Edited by Archie Marshek
Cinematography by John Seitz
Robert Preston as Detective Michael Crane
Laird Cregar as Willard Gates
Alan Ladd as Philip Raven
Tully Marshall as Alvin Brewster
Marc Lawrence as Tommy
Olin Howland as Blair Fletcher
Roger Imhof as Senator Burnett
Pamela Blake as Annie
Frank Ferguson as Albert Baker
Victor Kilian as Drew
Patricia Farr Ruby
Harry Shannon as Steve Finnerty
Charles C. Wilson as the police captain
Mikhail Rasumny as Slukey
Bernadene Hayes as Albert Baker’s secretary
Mary Davenport as the sales associate in the dress shop
Chester Clute as Mr. Stewart, the rooming house manager
Charles Arnt as the dressmaker
Earle Dewey (aka Earle S. Dewey) as Mr. Collins
Clem Bevans as the scissors grinder
Lynda Grey as Gates’s secretary
Virita Campbell as the girl in the stairwell
Distributed by Paramount Pictures (1942 to 1958), Universal Pictures (1958 to the present)
Produced by Paramount Pictures
This Gun for Hire is one of the reasons I love films noir. It’s another example of a short B film that packs a lot of information in its short running time, and viewers have to pay attention to make sure they take in all the plot details. I had to see the film twice to understand the political intrigue, the international espionage, the relationships among all the characters. I suspect being a viewer in 1942 would have helped you! You would have caught all the cultural references the first time, and you would have been more informed about international events and the U.S. entry into World War II.
This Gun for Hire is also the film that made Alan Ladd a star, even though he was billed last: “introducing Alan Ladd.” It’s also the first of three films noir that starred Ladd and Veronica Lake:
◊ This Gun for Hire (May 13, 1942)
◊ The Glass Key (October 14, 1942)
◊ The Blue Dahlia (April 19, 1946)
I can see why Ladd’s performance as Philip Raven in This Gun for Hire made him a star. He’s completely believable as a hit man who makes unpredictable choices that range between compassion and violence. He has most of the screen time, and he makes the longest speech in the film. It’s part of a conversation with his costar, Veronica Lake as Ellen Graham, in which he describes his background, explains why he is the way he is, and elicits her sympathy—and sympathy from viewers, too.
After the opening credits, the narrative starts with Philip Raven waking up to an alarm clock. A ragtime piano is playing on the soundtrack, which I think was intended to emphasize the ramshackle accommodations in a honky tonk neighborhood. Raven has been hired by a man who calls himself Johnson to kill someone named Albert Baker. But Johnson is really Willard Gates of the Nitro Chemical Corporation of Los Angeles, and thus the intrigue and double-crossing build from the beginning.
The first scene in the boarding house reveals that Raven is attentive to his cat, but he slaps the chambermaid when she swats at the cat to get it to leave. He then takes off to make the hit on Albert Baker. On the staircase in Baker’s apartment building, Raven meets a young girl in leg braces. He sees her on the way down, too, after killing Albert Baker and his secretary. The secretary wasn’t supposed to be there, but Raven cannot leave her alive as a witness. He considers shooting the young girl on the staircase because she, too, is a witness at least to his whereabouts, but he relents. Viewers learn right away that Raven is capable of evil. He has a soft spot, but it is impossible to predict when his soft spot will keep Raven from doing more evil.
(This blog post about This Gun for Hire contains spoilers.)
Willard Gates goes to the police, where he pays a visit to Detective Lieutenant Crane. Detective Crane, it turns out, is Ellen Graham’s boyfriend, which comes to light later in the film. Gates doesn’t know that; he is visiting Detective Crane because he intends to frame Raven. Gates paid Raven for the hit on Albert Baker with money he stole from the Nitro Chemical Corporation. During the theft, Gates injured the company paymaster, and he plans to double-cross Raven by pinning the theft on him. By the time the police catch up with Raven, they should then have a murder and the theft to pin on Raven.
Gates owns and runs the Neptune Club in addition to his day job at Nitro Chemical. Ellen Graham auditions for a part in an act at the club and gets the job. She is part of a sting working with Fletcher (who is posing as her agent) and Senator Burnett. Ellen is also involved in a double-cross of sorts, but she is on the side of patriotism: Senator Burnett wants her to find out what she can about Gates and the theft of industry trade secrets. Senator Burnett suspects that Gates is trading the secrets with foreign agents.
Ellen Graham and Philip Raven cross paths by coincidence (an example of fate at work in film noir), and she has an uphill battle trying to help him and getting him to help her with her citizen’s undercover investigation. Here’s a short example of a conversation between them that shows what she is up against:
• Raven: “Hey, this is good luck. Cats bring good luck. Cats bring you luck. And it’s hungry. [addressing the cat] Ain’t got nuthin’ for you, Tuffy.”
• Graham: “You like cats, don’t you?”
• Raven: “Yeah. They’re on their own. They don’t need anybody.”
• Graham: “Well, this one could do with a friend. So could you.”
• Raven: “You’re tryin’ to make me go soft. Well, you save your oil. I don’t go soft for anybody.”
Raven doesn’t go soft during this part of the conversation. In fact, he suffocates the cat to stop it from meowing and giving him and Graham away to the police while they are in hiding. But Graham does convince him—eventually—to do his patriotic duty and get the information that she needs about Gates and his boss, Alvin Brewster. Lieutenant Crane gets the girl (Graham); Graham finds out that Brewster and Gates were selling the chemical formula to the Japanese; Raven dies, but he dies satisfied that he helped Graham find out what she needed to learn for Senator Burnett.